How to Talk to Kids About Race: Books and Resources That Can Help

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill, Blend Images/Getty Images

We live in a time when we are confronted with the complex realities of race, racial identity, and racism every day, but are also advised and often encouraged to avoid discussing it. Even the mere mention of someone’s race can be considered “playing the race card” or “racist.” We talk about the need to be “colorblind” or the idea that there is “just one race — the human race.”

“Most Americans believe in racial and gender equality and reject discrimination in any form. Yet stereotypes embedded in our brains, shaped over time by history and culture, can lead us to view the world through a biased lens and behave contrary to our deeply held egalitarian values,” states The Perception Institute, an organization working to “reduce discrimination and other harms linked to race, gender, and other identity differences.”

While “I don’t see color” may come from a well-meaning place, studies show that it more likely does a great deal of harm. If we look closer, we often find that much of our reluctance to address race directly stems from our tendency to want to avoid discomfort. Yeah, it’s hard to talk about why #BlackLivesMatter has become a rallying cry, the legacy of our government’s relationship with its Native citizens, or why some individuals are called “illegal” and “alien.” Clinical psychologist, author, and professor Beverly Tatum asks us to “Think about these stereotypes, these omissions, these distortions as a kind of environment that surrounds us, like smog in the air. We don’t breathe it because we like it. We don’t breathe it because we think it’s good for us. We breathe it because it’s the only air that’s available.”

This is the world that we inhabit; we talk about needing to talk about race without ever actually talking honestly about race. I believe that it’s vital that we help our children (and ourselves) walk and talk in a way that clears that air and breathes new life into these conversations and our world. Sharing stories, real, fictional, our own, and others’, is a powerful tool for that purpose. Here are a few resources and books to help us have those hard conversations with the young people in our lives.

Take Stock First
Ask yourself the hard questions first. How do you navigate race? Who are the members of your social and professional circles? Does your family discuss race? What images does your child see? What conversations does she hear from you?  Take Harvard University’s “Implicit Bias” test to examine your own beliefs.

Take Opportunities
When race comes up, keep the lines of communication open, even if your child says something embarrassing, insensitive, or outright racist. Don’t simply condemn and shut down conversation. Ask questions to find out why they’re thinking what they’re thinking, and how these ideas developed. While we may want to believe that young children don’t harbor biases, research has shown that, as Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out, “even babies discriminate.”

“Young children need caring adults to help them construct a positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others,” points out Teaching for Change, in Teaching Young Children About Race. The Anti-Defamation League has an excellent collection of tips and resources for Engaging Young People in Conversations About Race. This PBS Interview with Beverly Tatum, from the series “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” can also provide rich food for family conversation.

Be Authentic and Intentional
Choose books that acknowledge that all of us are “different” in some way. Look for narratives that don’t only portray marginalized groups as suffering, in crisis, or being “saved” by outsiders; it’s also important to avoid reading only “hero” narratives about “exceptional” individuals. Seek out stories of multidimensional characters living complex lives. I’ve written here about the importance of cultivating a diverse library.

Melissa Taylor’s wonderful Kids Like Me book list includes more titles to share.

“Just as I am a story and you are a story and countries tell stories about themselves, race is a story, too,” writes Julius Lester in Let’s Talk About Race. If we speak and act with honesty, compassion, and thoughtful action, there’s hope for the ending of that story.